Government is looking increasingly more dysfunctional. Part of the reason, we hear, is that the senior civil service is not putting its weight behind the government. It is not perceived to be a willing partner.
We get flummoxed when we hear stories of civil servants occupying the chair doing just that – occupy the chair. Files may still be doing the back and forth but the Secretaries do not move much; not taking a position one way or the other.
The emerging impression is that while it may not be a case of ‘tools down’, the senior officers seem to be ‘shell shocked’ – in a state of paralysis, which is more insidious than the inertia that we have customarily charged bureaucracy with.
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At the political level there are murmurs of the bureaucracy not ‘cooperating’. We find it somewhat bewildering that a Secretary will not cooperate with the government that put him in that position, particularly when for each of these top slots there is no shortage of contenders for the government to choose from.
Is the contagion becoming pandemic, affecting the civil service root and branch and not specific to the cautious few? Is it the fear factor – NAB picking them up and the Courts, to put it mildly, chastising them? But if the government says it is doing no wrong why should civil servants be afraid to append their signatures to something that is kosher and implement the policies of the government as they are obligated to do?
Perhaps the fear factor is more complex than that. The devil is not in what appears right or wrong today but how it might be perceived some years later. It could also come in the form of collateral damage – a political opponent is picked up and the former Secretary gets a midnight knock – become an approver or else! There are several recent examples that inform the behavior of senior civil servants.
Or is the fear Hydra a cover up for incompetence? If you don’t know your subject and have little to contribute why not explain it away by solidifying the standard refrain “you don’t decide and there are no consequences; you do and you get into trouble”.
While in our business dealings we have often been on the receiving end of bureaucratic inaction, or ‘activism’, we really do not have a good enough insight into the workings of bureaucracy. To peep into the inner sanctum of higher echelons of bureaucracy we reached out to two serving Secretaries, who, quite understandably, wish to remain unnamed.
While they concede ‘why stick your neck out’ is a contributory factor they do not consider it the dominant concern. To them the real issues are role effectiveness and the responsibility-authority disconnect.
There is also the matter of government’s unwieldy agenda – government has bitten far more than it can chew – and the constantly shifting priorities. Besides being unwieldy, the agenda is riddled with contradictions – a natural consequence of clash between IMF’s faith in the market and government’s aspirations of a welfare state(greater equalities, more jobs, low inflation, better quality of life). Welfare cannot be left to the magic of the market. Social protection, IMF’s default answer, cannot go far enough.
Our bureaucratic sleuths tell us the Secretaries, nostalgically harking back to the eulogy of ‘steel frame’, now see themselves getting framed into a straitjacket of subservience. From ‘running the show’ they are being asked to follow the herd that is directionless and prone to sudden ‘turns’.
This is where the responsibility-authority disconnect assumes salience. Who is responsible for what and who has the operational authority? Rules of Business give both to the Secretary; in practice, they say, they carry the can but have no authority to put into it what it takes.
He takes orders from the political leadership but more often than not it is the civil servant that is held accountable by the Courts. As Principal Accounting Officer it is the Secretary, not the Minister, who is required to defend the Ministry before the Public Accounts Committee.
Things get more convoluted when it comes to designing public policy. Who should have the principal role: the politician or the functionary? This has been an ongoing debate, and theoretically one would expect the political leadership to own this responsibility – and be held accountable for it – as is the case in the countries that we draw our inspiration from.
But in our context the competence deficit makes policy making more than an ownership issue. Who should fill the void: someone who has been trained for 30 years to do this or the politico who, exceptions apart, is a bit of a novice in this area, and also burdened by narrow interests of his constituents and the short electoral cycle?
We suspect the senior civil service’s actual chagrin is feeling excluded from ‘real action’, now taken over by the technocrat or the Banigala ‘cabinet’. He never tires of reminding anyone willing to give him an ear of Nobel-laureate Paul Krugman’s article ‘A Country is not a Company’, arguing that Government is far too complex to box into a business model, and its management requires an entirely different skill set.
Despite the questionable policy outcome when the civil service was on top, and the technocrat on tap – not the other way around – the feeling that permeates the service is that it is better positioned than others to deliver. It wants its role better defined.
It unhesitatingly accepts political supremacy but would want the government to define the goals and leave the choice of tools (to achieve these goals) to the civil service. To the more visionary of the civil servants politicization is much more than influencing postings and transfers; policy capture by the politicians under the influence of vested interests is what makes it truly venal.
A civil service with its morale in the boots is of little use to the nation. And yet it is an indispensable, perhaps critical, pillar of the governance structure. It is for the leadership to get the best out of it. Neither bullying nor ‘sham’ pep talks will do the trick. The confidence of the service needs to be restored.
Hopefully, trooping to Pindi, a la the business leaders, will not be necessary to restore this confidence.
(This news/article originally appeared in Business Recorder on October 17th, 2019)